Families help bridge the gap

CORONA DEL MAR — Frank and Nancie Carpenter's house, just blocks from Corona del Mar High School, has become a revolving door for children whose biological parents find themselves in a bind.

Take Juan and Demi, infants whose young mother is serving an eight-month jail sentence for theft. The mother is, for all intents and purposes, logistically out of pocket and a bit too indisposed at the moment to be a mother.

"She's kind of a personification of all the things that can go wrong with somebody's life," says Frank Carpenter, 49, who, with his wife, Nancie, decided to lend a helping hand by taking the children under their wings and giving them shelter. "She's got legal troubles, drug troubles, the whole tomato, but we have confidence that she'll be able to better herself. She has to."

But in the interim, the Carpenters are taking over where the mother left off. It's all part of Safe Families for Children, a nationwide nonprofit group that's fast becoming an alternative to having to hand the children over to the government, said Carrie Cornwall, a spokeswoman for Olive Crest, an Orange County-based nonprofit that raises the money to help fund Safe Families.

If there were ever a doubt that local families can step in and relieve the government of the burden of having to care for so many neglected children, the Carpenter family is but one example.

They've been taking care of children whose parents are down on their luck, or in trouble with the law, since late last year.

Other examples include caring for Karen, a 7-month-old girl whose mother had a miscarriage while in the hospital and had no means to take care of her. Then there's Janice, a 15-year-old whose father was homeless last spring and too busy looking for a job to take care of his child.

The sad stories are endless, but they paint a different picture of Orange County than the one more often associated with surf and sun.

Hundreds of families have a hard time making ends meet and the children can often suffer as a result, Cornwall said, adding that many mothers and fathers have to live out of automobiles or check into homeless shelters before they find their footing — if they ever do at all.

Enter Safe Families for Children, which started in 2002 and is mostly organized through local churches across the country. It's facilitated locally by Olive Crest.

In the case of the Carpenter family, they attend Mariners Christian Church in Irvine, where 11 families have been certified to take care of neglected children through Safe Families, Cornwall said.

As many as 44 families are pending certification, Hill said. At the moment, 41 children have been placed with different families in Southern California.

In all cases, background checks have to be conducted on the families before they can start taking care of the children on an interim basis until the biological parents are ready to enter the picture again, Cornwall said.

For the Carpenters, the good deed is simple, but that's not to say it doesn't add a tad bit more stress to their lives. Frank works as a controller of a construction company in Riverside while Nancy, after nearly three decades of working as a bookkeeper, now looks after the children. Yet they realize what is abundantly obvious: They've got housing and children need it. So they and their daughter, Cassandra Carpenter, in her mid-20s, are going to offer shelter.

A certified teacher rearing to get a job and a recent graduate of UC Irvine, Cassandra Carpenter speaks Spanish and is getting a little practice in with Juan and Demi. Even though they are young, Cassandra says she can tell they recognize a few words.

"I love taking care of children," she says.

Adds Nancie, "The Christian community should be at the forefront of caring for our neighbors. It can be kind of scary for both parties involved, but a lot of people want to help, and there are people out there who need our help. Safe Families bridges that gap."

For information on how to help neglected children, call Olive Crest at 1-800-550-CHILD.

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